As they say, “ya gotta have a gimmick”. Well today’s film definitely has a gimmick. It’s a musical and each of the legion of musical numbers (and, actually, pretty much every aspect of the film) comes from one musical act. In this case, it’s The Beatles. Today’s film is Across The Universe.
Across The Universe tells several stories against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Mostly, it is the story of two star crossed lovers, Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) -because, of course that is their names, who meet at that classic Beatle’s hangout – Harvard? Jude has come to the US, from (where else) Liverpool, on the trail of his real father, who is a janitor of Harvard’s hallowed halls. Almost immediately, he meets and befriends Max (who will no doubt have some sort of a shiny metallic hitting instrument and is played by Joe Anderson, who looks for all the world like someone smooshed David Tennant, Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale together) and his sister, Lucy. Max and Jude soon head off to NYC, where they end up in an apartment owned by Sadie (Dana “Seriously, I am Not Joan Osbourne, but I am Janis” Fuchs, and who may or may not be a cleaning lady). The story soon jumps to Detroit, during the race riots, where we are introduced to JoJo (who doesn’t at all become a Jimi Hendrix a like), who also finds soon himself in NYC, and living under the same roof as Max, Jude and Sadie. Soon enough, they are joined by another member of their ragtag little group, Prudence (who actually did come in through the bathroom window), a runaway with a secret; with Lucy joining them to complete their number.
Max soon finds himself enlisted into the army and having to go fight the war, and leaves the merry band; with Prudence soon running off herself, after Sadie and JoJo hook up. After a segment designed only to get The Beatles psychedelic stuff into play (which has been included for the benefit of Eddie Izzard, who plays Mr Kite and Bono who plays the not at all Timothy Leary/Kinky Freidman hybrid, Dr Robert). Lucy joins up with ant-war activists who soon take over her life, causing a huge rift between her and Jude, ending with their break up as she leaves the group herself. After Sadie and JoJo break up, the group pretty much go their separate ways – Jude, now an artist (and getting to perform a pretty decent back and forth of Strawberry Fields Forever with Max), eventually heads back to England after getting arrested trying to save Lucy from the same fate at an anti-war rally. Long story short, the lovers get back together despite the obstacles against them, the titular song is sung and many, many Beatles songs get covered and reinterpreded. So many Beatles songs. Lots.
This is a film that I don’t think knew what it really wanted to be, outside of a celebration of one band’s rather expansive catalogue. It jumps from crazy art project to anti-war drama to love story to musical and back again with an almost unhinged schizophrenia, and ends up really not doing any of it all that differently from other things that have tried the same stories and messages. It’s just that not many have done them as a single (not particularly coherent) unit; and certainly not with this gimmick. I guess it suffers from the same thing that a lot of musicals, in my opinion, suffer from – pretty OK music wrapped around an ultimately hackneyed story.
I guess your tolerance and enjoyment of the film comes from your own personal liking of the music of The Beatles. Me, I’m weird – I really don’t like the band proper, but I do tend to like a hell of a lot of the covers. And hell, I’ll say it, some of the production numbers were pretty damn good (JoJo’s introduction to NYC to the strains of Come Together as slammed out of the park by Mr Joe Cocker is a particular stand out, as is the nightmare freak out of For The Benefit Of Mister Kite, with Eddie Izzard just having a hell of a time in a routine that looks like it was made with off cuts from Mirrormask). The love story set against wartime (even the Vietnam War) has been done so many times though, that you can see why a gimmick was needed to make this one stand out, and it for the most part did – what does and doesn’t, like I said, comes down to your fandom of the band.
Ultimately, for me at least, this is a film that was just kinda there.